While holding a special place in world history as a multidimensional plant that sparks opposing narratives, cannabis is quite simply a very common, adaptable, sun-loving weed that can be grown in many climates. Its origins have been traced 36 million years back to the Altai Mountains in the high plateau of Central Asia.
From there it spread across the globe, going northward into China and Europe, where its use as a fiber became prevalent (although there is evidence that it was used as medicine there as well). It went south into India, the Middle East, and Africa, where its healing properties and psychoactive use caught on. Wherever the plant was introduced, it tended to stay, with a remarkable range of medicinal, dietary, and practical use by people in far-ranging cultures.
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This kind of diverse use of a plant is a common indicator of the length of its relationship with humans. A characteristic of some of our oldest cultivated plants is that they serve multiple purposes, from fiber to food to medicine. In many parts of Eurasia, cannabis is self-sown, especially along river valleys where humans first tended to settle and change native environments.
Known as a “camp-follower, ” the plant adapts quickly to newly cleared habitats and would often be among the first to colonize nitrogen-rich compost heaps created by people. As new uses were found for the plant, more direct cultivation took place in and around settlements.
It went by literally hundreds of names and has a vast history—beyond the scope of this book—but was very commonly used in ancient Greek medicine. Its most popular scientific name is traced to Greece. Dioscorides referred it to in the first century AD8 as kannabion (a familiar diminutive form translating to “little cannabis” or “dear cannabis, ” likely from the root kanna or cane). 9
Several different theories about the etymology of the word point to Sumerian or Sanskrit origins. 10 Some scholars claim that the plant is referred to in the Bible either as an “aromatic reed or cane” or as part of a “holy oil” made with several herbs and only permitted to be used to anoint members of the Aaronic priesthood
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